Retraction Watch

Tracking retractions as a window into the scientific process

The latest sting: Will predatory journals hire “Dr. Fraud”?

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Katarzyna Pisanski

From time to time, academics will devise a “sting” operation, designed to expose journals’ weaknesses. We’ve seen scientists submit a duplicated paper, a deeply flawed weight loss paper designed to generate splashy headlines (it worked), and an entirely fake paper – where even the author calls it a “pile of dung.” So it wasn’t a huge surprise when Katarzyna Pisanski at the University of Sussex and her colleagues found that so-called “predatory” journals – which are allegedly willing to publish subpar papers as long as the authors pay fees – often accepted a fake editor to join their team. In a new Nature Comment, Pisanski and her team (Piotr Sorokowski, Emek Kulczycki and Agnieszka Sorokowska) describe creating a profile of a fake scientist named Anna O. Szust (Oszust means “a fraud” in Polish). Despite the fact that Szust never published a single scholarly article and had no experience as a reviewer or editor, approximately one-third of predatory journals accepted Szust’s application as an editor. We spoke with Pisanski about the project.

Retraction Watch: What made you conceive of this project, and what did you hope to accomplish?

Katarzyna Pisanski: As described in the paper, it was a matter of getting an absurd number of emails every week – sometimes multiple times a day – inviting us to send our own papers to, review papers for, or even be editors of journals entirely outside of our fields of expertise. For example, I just received an invitation to join the editorial board of a journal specializing in otorhinolaryngology. Almost every academic is familiar with receiving these kinds of emails, and yet, the problem is growing, fast. This ‘sting’ was our way of drawing attention to the problem. Ultimately, it’s a call to action.

To become an editor of a respected, legitimate journal, a scholar must be a recognized, respected, and experienced expert in the given field. In our study, we show that a fictitious, completely unqualified person can become an editor (or even editor-in-chief) of some ‘scholarly’ journals, most of which were listed by librarian Jeffrey Beall as ‘probably predatory’. The motives in many cases are financial.

The bottom-line is that this is harmful for everyone. Scholarly papers published in these types of journals are far less likely to have undergone any kind of quality check, including peer review. It could result in (and probably already has) thousands of scientific articles that have essentially gone ‘un-checked’. Papers that have not been peer-reviewed, or checked for ethical misconduct and conflicts of interest. If we cannot trust the academic publishing system, who can we trust?

RW: Were you surprised at the number of journals that accepted Szust’s request to be an editor (including one to which you didn’t even apply)?

KP: Unfortunately, no

RW: Some journals might argue that receiving an unsolicited email from a researcher asking to be on an editorial board would raise a red flag. If so, could your results simply show that traditional journals are aware of this “red flag,” while predatory journals (many of which are relatively new) haven’t yet figured this out?

KP: Whether a red flag is raised or not, every journal should apply a meticulous and standard vetting process before including any member to its editorial board. The sad truth is that no journal attempted to contact Szust’s university or department. Moreover, the credentials readily listed on her CV were entirely insufficient to serve as the editor of an academic journal. For example, none of Anna O. Szust’s work was cited by other scientists, nor had she published a single scholarly paper! Her book chapters were made up, as were the publishing houses, which the journal’s staff could have verified with a simple internet search.

RW: Eight journals indexed by the Directory of Open Access Journals (DOAJ) accepted Szust’s request (six of which are still on the DOAJ). Does that raise concerns for you about this vetting system, designed to help the community decide if a journal is legitimate?

KP: The DOAJ is considered a credible ‘community-curated’ directory. Its undertakers have been working hard to exclude any journals that do not exhibit best practices. This is in large part why the DOAJ has instated new, more comprehensive criteria for inclusion in the past two years. Obviously, this is no small or easy task.

RW: Many people were surprised (and disappointed) when Jeffrey Beall took down his online directory of supposed predatory journals. There’s now one less resource for scientists to use when judging a publication’s quality. What advice would you give to researchers who receive an invitation from a journal they don’t know?

KP: As suggested in the comment, scholars can educate themselves about what makes a journal credible using various resources, such as ‘Principles of Transparency and Best Practice in Scholarly Publishing’ compiled through a collaboration of several community organizations (Committee on Publishing Ethics, the DOAJ, Open Access Scholarly Publishers Association and the World Association of Medical Editors).

Scholars can also check whether a journal is listed on the Journal Citation Reports (which lists journals with an official impact factor) and DOAJs whitelists.

With time and experience most scholars acquire an almost ‘implicit’ understanding about what constitutes good science. They learn about reputable journals from mentors and leaders in their field. But this takes time, and so students and early career researchers are encouraged to talk with others on this topic early on.

As I mentioned earlier, the project was meant as a call to action both to academics and to the funding bodies, boards and committees that reward academics for their publication counts and editorial experience. We need to de-incentivize contributions to low-quality journals that do not promote best practices and exist primarily to make money. (To be clear, this is not to be mistaken with open-access journals at large. The open-access movement is a very good thing. There are many excellent open-access journals that charge fees but also promote best practices, many in which I have or would publish my own work).

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Written by Alison McCook

March 22nd, 2017 at 2:00 pm

  • Margaret Winker, MD March 22, 2017 at 2:26 pm

    Can you please clarify whether the application was for the position of editor or editorial board? The article mentions both. Obviously either is a serious problem, but only editors have the authority to accept manuscripts for publication.

  • Warrick March 22, 2017 at 2:46 pm

    With a great CV now in place, can Dr Szust break through into the “real” science publication world?

  • Keith March 23, 2017 at 7:18 am

    You might say that the journals made…
    *CSI sunglasses*
    …a Fraudian slip.

  • MannyHM March 23, 2017 at 9:36 am

    Normal and abnormal controls are needed to find out the reliability of an analyzer.

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